From fear to romance in Nairobi’s parks

Nanjala Nyabola on how Nairobi’s young lovers have claimed the city’s public spaces for displays of affection, despite violent histories.

A green bench beside a path in a park with grass and trees
The Nairobi Arboretum – one of the city’s most popular date spots. Photo by Ninara under a CC BY 2.0 license

Anyone who thinks that romantic stories set in Nairobi are implausible simply has not spent enough time in the city’s parks. The thought occurred to me this weekend as I ambled through the Nairobi Arboretum, a cultivated forest of trees from all over the world that is also one of the city’s most popular date spots. Due to its proximity to the University of Nairobi it’s common to glimpse young couples among the trees.

Unlike heavily manicured parks in Europe and North America, most of Nairobi’s parks have an unvarnished feel about them – towering trees that bloom only when the season calls for it, with various species of monkey, squirrels and the occasional small antelope moving through the brush relatively undisturbed. There’s something elemental about watching love take shape under these rich canopies.

Love is an interesting idea, and the politics of defining and expressing it shows up in our lives in unexpected ways. In some countries merely expressing love – platonic or erotic – can be a point of friction and even violence. On the surface Nairobi doesn’t stand out as a particularly conservative place but when you travel to other parts of the continent, you realize how elaborate the unspoken rules around expressing love in public can be here.

Within my lifetime seeing heterosexual couples holding hands in public has become generally unremarkable, but kissing or cuddling outside a nightclub or a restaurant will still draw unwanted attention from passersby. It tells a story about a society in which norms have a stronger hold on people’s behaviour than explicit rules. And the visceral reaction that some people have to complete strangers expressing positive feelings towards each other says something about the legacy of trauma that permeates public life in Kenya.

The redemption of Nairobi’s parks, from places where the worst violence was meted out to rare safe spaces where love can be so openly expressed, is one of the city’s most important victories.

Which brings me back to Nairobi’s parks. The protection of public places in the city has always been fraught. Activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai became so well-known in part due to her frequent clashes with the authoritarian administration of then president, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, over his rapacious desire to sell-off public spaces for construction. Today, people wander through Karura forest and the arboretum forgetting that Maathai was badly beaten and arrested several times for just wanting to keep the parks open. These parks are also places where the bodies of dissidents and criminals would be disposed of, as the arboretum shares a fence with State House, the president’s formal residence.

Millennials are the last generation to remember parks in Nairobi as places to fear, rather than places to express love. This only adds to the poignancy of seeing so many young couples enjoying them. Often when it comes to politics we focus on the things that go wrong and forget to celebrate things that go right. The redemption of Nairobi’s parks, from places where the worst violence was meted out to rare safe spaces where love can be so openly expressed, is one of the city’s most important victories. It’s a shame that the government doesn’t see them as worth funding so they can remain free for people to use, but at the concessionary rates currently charged they remain relatively accessible. I hope Nairobi’s parks will remain anchor sites where an expression of the city’s identity, rooted in love, can be incubated and then shared.